Cowboys and Dandies and Wizards, Oh My
Lisa asked me to talk a bit today about the inspirations for Prosperity, particularly in the light of the blurb, which is quite self-consciously pulpy.
Prosperity actually has quite a long history of how it got where it is, and so it has quite a lot of random influences feeding into it. I originally wrote it in response to an open call for frontier stories. I really want to something about the wild west, or at least that felt like the wild west, but I’m kind of squicked out by the, y’know, the genocide that was going on at the time. More broadly, the problem with frontier stories is that virtually every “frontier” explorers have ever encountered has been someone else’s home. You had all these Victorians running off excitedly to darkest Africa and talking about all the things they’d found that nobody had ever seen before. Things that by and large were built by people whose descendants still lived in the area.
So this led me to try and find a frontier that was not only uninhabited but uninhabitable. I did toy with space, but in the kind of SF I’d be capable of writing, other planets are just this planet in a slightly different hat, and I really didn’t want to deal with the difficult issue of using aliens as a metaphor for the indigenous people of everywhere that isn’t Europe. That kind of left the sky and the sea, and the sea – while cool – felt a bit Bioshock. Of course, ironically, “in the sky” wound up being Bioshock Infinite but it wasn’t out when I started writing.
This meant that even from the beginning, Prosperity was already a horrendous mashup of different tropes and influences: it was essentially a western sensibility in a British setting with steampunk technology, magic and Lovecraftian monsters. And, of course, it doesn’t just mashup across genres, it mashes up across time. Because it’s set in the 19th century, there are elements of the story that are strongly influenced by 19th century literary devices and tropes (it’s a found narrative, every chapter starts with an Argument, although that’s strictly speaking an 18th century, rather than 19th century device, it’s very preoccupied with British Victorian values, and so on) but because it’s a western it also draws on both the features of that period of American history, but perhaps more importantly the narrative tradition of the western, which is actually a 20th century construct. And that ties it into a wider pulp tradition which is where the Lovecraftian elements and the wizards come into it.
Part of the fun of throwing so many different things together is the way some elements of the story take on a dual role. Most of the characters quite consciously reflect both a Victorian and a western archetype. So Milord is the dastardly villain of a 19th century sensation novel, but he’s also kind of a riff on Doc Holliday. Ruben is the preacher and lawman, but he’s also the virtuous hero of a Victorian melodrama. Dil is part Dickensian urchin, part Tom Sawyer, part Billy the Kid. Miss Grey is kind of my favourite because she goes in all the directions simultaneously: she’s Jane Eyre and Mrs Rochester, she’s the perfect Victorian lady and the fallen woman.
Of course it strikes me that this unceremonious blending of two or three centuries worth of images and influences is basically what the fantasy genre has always done. I think we sometimes fail to notice this because we’re so used to swords and horses fantasy looking the way it does, but virtually any fantasy story you can name will be smooshing together ideas and events that took place hundreds of years and thousands of miles apart. The Lord of Rings puts early 20th century rural England north of 8th century Anglo Saxons who are just to the west of a High Medieval city-state. Game of Thrones (or A Song of Ice and Fire to the book fans) feels more historically realistic but it still puts the overarching structure of a power struggle that took place in 15th century Britain onto a continent the size of North America, and threatens it with a barbarian invasion based on events that took place on the other side of the world two hundred years previously.
So, in a sense, my influences for Prosperity, like the influences on most of the fantasy genre, can perhaps best be summarised as “cool shit from the past”.
Blurb: A breathtaking tale of passion and adventure in the untamed skies!
Prosperity, 1863: a lawless skytown where varlets, chancers, and ne’er-do-wells risk everything to chase a fortune in the clouds, and where a Gaslight guttersnipe named Piccadilly is about to cheat the wrong man. This mistake will endanger his life . . . and his heart.
Thrill! As our hero battles dreadful kraken above Prosperity. Gasp! As the miracles of clockwork engineering allow a dead man to wreak his vengeance upon the living. Marvel! At the aerial escapades of the aethership, Shadowless.
Beware! The licentious and unchristian example set by the opium-addled navigatress, Miss Grey. Disapprove Strongly! Of the utter moral iniquity of the dastardly crime prince, Milord. Swoon! At the dashing skycaptain, Byron Kae. Swoon Again! At the tormented clergyman, Ruben Crowe.
This volume (available in print, and for the first time on mechanical book-reading devices) contains the complete original text of Piccadilly’s memoirs as first serialised in All the Year Round. Some passages may prove unsettling to unmarried gentlemen of a sensitive disposition.
About the Author: Alexis Hall was born in the early 1980s and still thinks the 21st century is the future. To this day, he feels cheated that he lived through a fin de siècle but inexplicably failed to drink a single glass of absinthe, dance with a single courtesan, or stay in a single garret. He did the Oxbridge thing sometime in the 2000s and failed to learn anything of substance. He has had many jobs, including ice cream maker, fortune teller, lab technician, and professional gambler. He was fired from most of them.
He can neither cook nor sing, but he can handle a 17th century smallsword, punts from the proper end, and knows how to hotwire a car.
He lives in southeast England, with no cats and no children, and fully intends to keep it that way.
Oh, and you can also find me on Booklikes if that’s your preferred book-based social media product.
How would you like the chance to win a $250 Steampunk Gear Shopping Spree? Alexis Hall and Riptide Publishing are running a Tour-Wide contest for just that very thing. If you’d like to enter in the drawing, just leave a comment right here by November 9, 2014, and you’ll be automatically qualified. One winner will be selected at random and notified via email, so be sure to include that in your comment so Alexis and the team at Riptide will know how to reach you.